THE LIGHT WITHIN
I am where the hydrangeas grow
And the rain showers the hills
The whistling thrush sings on my window
A song of love and peace
No matter the lightening, no worry the thunder
There is a time for everyone which shall come on its own
I’ve stopped searching the sky for whispers
I’ve forgotten the feeling of lying on grass
I don’t walk on dew anymore
I am content with the rain that the heavens pour
No more I look for oceans in her eyes
Nor do I wonder what Nostradamus says
The trifling nature of humans is nothing before the might of Time
It was all written in your stars when you were sent to earth
The pleasure and pain
The walks, the falls and the rise again
How people shall pinch your feathers away
When they are envious of your flights
How Brutus will stab his Caesar again
How Shylock will demand his pound of flesh
You are no more in your mother’s womb, my child
You better brave the new world order
The tempests, the stones and the mocks
They come again and again
To spite you and to harm you
They are not imaginary fears
They are the plots of the imperfect
Who have not felt the presence of God
And are afraid not of His mighty sword
Many like Alexander have come and gone
Their ambitions carried away in drops of poison, of their own making
Only the Kookaburra, and the Whistling Thrush remain
To narrate the story of yesteryears
Still they carry on with puffed chests
The airbags, those a mere pin can deflate
I’ve given up chasing butterflies, those hover on blossoms briefly
They will go on living on flowers, sipping sweet nectar
Carrying the pollen unwittingly
To other pastures and foreign lands
I have become the undying witness to the passing time
I know every Achilles has a soft heel
No one lives beyond his time
All pebbles of the river bed, disintegrate slowly
Till they become just sands of Time
I look to the light that lives within
Call it by any name, it is the same
It is the candle of the good deed
It is the fire of the funeral pyre
Choose your light with wisdom and care
You are the Light that lives within
(Written: Shimla: June 9, 2018; 6.05 am to 8.22 am)
Where Nature weaves magic in the air; where the Himalayan peaks shine resplendent; where faith lives through a hole in the rocks; where you can walk listening to bird calls and breathe the freshness of mountain breeze; where Jim Corbett made his home; where the breeze sings a virgin song; this is Mukteshwar.
Nestled in the Uttarakhand hills of Nainital District this small town lives still untouched by the influences of the plains. Though barely 350 km from Delhi, it transports a visitor into a unique stillness that is unparalleled and allows peace to blossom in heart. Some hotels look at valleys, some at snow peaks, some get a temple view, some just a forest, so stay wherever because you can walk wherever in this place easily discovering different facets of Nature.
By the time we reached; my friend, a bachelor boy from Delhi, his two cousins and I, it was time for dinner. Searching a hotel was not difficult, it just fell on way. A new construction by an NRI, now settled in Delhi, alone most of the time in Mukteshwar, offered clean rooms and good linen but did not open his room heaters, perhaps because of the concession he offered us, the only people that night in his hotel.
We lit up a bonfire and talked and sang and drank.
The stars were beautiful as ever, twinkling into nursery rhymes, creating the magic tirelessly every night. The Moon, as it rose looked a little too nearer and reddish brown in its ascent. How much love must the stars give to the Earth? How much indulgence must the Moon show to humans? Existentialist questions, those never get to raise their tiny heads amidst the negativity of city life always rise up to the fore and clamour for answers. One of our friends was too involved in stoking the fire. He wanted to see the flames rise high in the cold.
The night was cold, it being January. Dawn was heavenly and the soft rays of the Sun touched everything and made it look like bathed in liquid gold.
Thereafter, I led the group to the former home of Jim Corbett.
He started as a railway Inspector of Permanent Way; went on to become a shooter of maneater tigers and ended up as a wildlife conservationist. What a trajectory his bullet like life took. The view from his bungalow; now a Tourist Rest House, is magnificent. The eye meets a king size view of Himalayan peaks which dwarf all human effort and ambition before them. From end to the other are the peaks of Nanda Kot, Nanda Ghunti, Nanda Devi, Trishul, Panchachuli etc. What more can a man want after this! Days and nights; season after season one can sit here and ponder on Life, God and Truth.
A mountain pathway to the right as we exit this place took us to the cliff where surprisingly sharp rocks jut out into the sky. As usual many lovers have etched their names with designs of heart and arrow on the rocks. Some singles just left their impressions alone.
People climb up the inclining and obliging rock surface, sit and pose for a photograph while barren women engage in a daring display of faith.
There is a round hole in a rock, big enough to take in a human body across. People say that if a barren woman goes across the Chauli ki Jali on Shivratri, she is blessed with a child! Faith makes one do impossible things!
The restaurant down below gave some wise quotes and a half-cooked omelette, which we gulped down sans criticism as we were hungry by then.
One can take long forest walks in the forests at Mukteswar. One can trek from Peora to Mukteshwar or Peora to Almora as well as Binsar to Artola. If you are a camping type, this is the ideal place for you to experience the camp life, do stargazing and light bonfires.
I like going to villages and talking to the real people who brave the inclement weather and make a living out of very little. There I met Gopuli Devi. When I asked for her husband, she said he is not there. I requested her to tell him on phone that there is a visitor to meet him. “He will not be able to come”, she said. “Why?” I asked. “Because, he is gone to a place from where no one comes back”, she answered. By then I understood, that he was no more.
I apologized profusely and spoke to her about life with her children; her broken parapet, and the Plum orchard that sustains her family. She told me that someone had poisoned her husband and he died an untimely death. So, jealousy and conceited violence also dwells within an outwardly peaceful looking village society. I was taken aback and hurt as I saw her three children and her lone efforts to keep the family hearth going.
I came back with mixed emotions of man-eaters and conservationists, still lurking around in the shadows of Mukteshwar!
(Text & photographs by Sandeep Silas)
They say a jungle teaches you life. There is order in the jungle; there is beauty in the jungle; there is danger in the jungle; there is an originality in the jungle. No animal eats the other without any reason unlike in the human world!
Seog, is a dense forest 30 minutes from Shimla just after Dhalli. A gate beckons you inside. I missed out seeing the statue of the panther and deer on the gate and only saw the birds on the board. There was an option to cycle but the guard coaxed me to trek if I really wanted to enjoy the forests. It was 7.5 km one way, so a 15 km round trek.
Off I went, camera dangling on my chest trying to hear the birds and then strain my eyes to spot them. It was 10 am and already late as the early birds had already caught the worm and went into hiding. Still, I could see a Whistling Thrush and some others.
An insect clinging to a creeper entwining a deodar tree caught my eye as strange but unique!
Two km inside I heard the Barking Deer and looked up the mountain to see a herd passing through the forests during the day’s activity. Just then some one called and insisted I talk. The deer herd had vanished by then. So I put it on silent mode not to miss out on the sheer experience and pin drop silence of the forests, occasionally broken by bird calls. Often I found fresh droppings of the deer, tell-tale signs of it having traversed that way, but no luck anymore. So I enjoyed the overwhelming effect created by the Deodars (Cedrus Deodara) and Moru Oak (Quercus Dilatata) trees. They become home to monkeys, langurs, birds, insects, butterflies and give shade that the sun too cannot pierce. There was not a soul on the trek and I felt like the King of the Jungle.
Once I imagined that our Mogli boy would emerge out of the shadows and show me some of his territory. The boards said that the forests were home to: Black-lored Tit, Rufous Breasted Accentor, Grey Treepie, Rufous Treepie, Jungle Owlet, Red Billed Blue Magpie, Grey Headed Woodpecker, Alexandrine Parakeet, Plumbeous water Redstart, Chestnut tailed Milna, Rufous Sibia, Grey winged Black Bird, Orange flanked Bush Robin, Asian Koel, Black Bulbul, Variegated Laughingthrush, Black Francolin, Blue-capped Redstart, Long Tailed Thrush, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Chestnut Thrush, Yellow Brested Green Finch, Eurasian Treecreeper, Pink browed Rose Finch, Green backed Tit, Slaty headed Parakeet, Green Pigeon, Yellow Bellied Fantail, Common Hoopoe, Black-throated Tit, Great Himalayan Barbet, Whiskered Yuhina, Scaly-breated Munia, Common Tailor Bird, Common Rose Finch, Blue-throated Barbet, Oriental White-eye, Speckled Piculet, Rusty cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Black headed Jay, Plum headed Parakeet and so on. The list is endless.It goes further into the types of Butterflies, Orchids, Shrubs and Flowering Trees.
However, there is a season for everything. So when there are Orchids the trees won’t flower, similarly when the weather is cold the birds and animals prefer to hide and bask in their piece of sunshine.
I walked discovering whatever I could till I came to the end of the trek, where stood a water tank and three huts.
A small temple stood at one side of the huts.
Above this settlement was a Forest Rest House, where no one is allowed during the nights.
Here grew in abundance the yellow Spanish Broom flower (Spartium Junceum). It was a beautiful sight especially when contrasted with the azure blue sky. The best discovery of this trek was this flower called with a Spanish name albeit having the fragrance of a French perfume!
There is a Water Catchment Tank built during the British times at the far end of Seog Trek. It captures mountain spring water and supplies to the city. The pipes are so sturdy that they have not yet been changed!
I saw a village lady whom I wished. She asked me whether I would like to have tea. I said a polite ‘no, thank you’. She again asked me for coffee thinking my taste could be different and supplemented that she makes good coffee. I again said a ‘no thanks’.
Then she offered me Chaaj (Skimmed Milk) to which I said a resounding yes. Neelam, (her name), happily brought fresh Chaaj. I have never had such good chaaj. It was perfect. Then she asked me for lunch. It definitely was lunch time and there was no possibility of finding food in the jungle. I said yes but on a condition that she takes payment for the meal. She hesitated and said that she does not sell food. I did not mean to insult her hospitality but, knew they were very poor folks. She brought me some dal, kadhi and rice, and I must write that it was the best kadhi-chawal I had ever had. Perhaps, the generosity of the poor adds to the taste of food they serve from their kitchen.
In a while her daughter came. I asked her what the daughter was pursuing. Neelam said, that the daughter is a Graduate, and has done some computer courses, takes examinations but doesn’t get placed in a job.
Kalpana, the daughter, and I, spoke. She was full of enthusiasm and was willing to serve anywhere in the country. The girl demonstrated confidence. Of course, having been brought up in a forest where only 4 people (3 of family) lived, she suffered from communication skills in comparison to the city-bred.
I really felt the worthlessness of our University education, which does confer degrees but cannot lead to a job situation. Sloganeering for election purposes is acceptable but, unless education leads to a dignified lifestyle, it is actually not serving its purpose. The issue deserves deep thought at the highest level. What would Kalpana do in a situation she does not get a job. Live off her parents, already old and sick? Live in the jungle grazing cows? Fall into a trap? Go to a city like her brother and engage for a job much below her expectations? Or at best find a job, for which she has no aptitude?
The girl was taking competitive examinations regularly, but what kind of guidance can she get in a situation like this where the forest is the only teacher and master.
There are thousands of such stories abounding in the country. There are many Kalpana’s in remote corners of India, who are fighting out with destiny and struggling to assert their existence.
Unless the country is able to provide, look after and fulfill their aspirations, can we call ourselves free?
Neelam, told me that the forest is peopled by six types of panthers, those she has seen. They once also had a leopard eyeing their cat, who sat for a long time before their hut.
I was only expecting birds and deer at the most. My return thereafter was a very careful walk. Each gust of wind that rustled some dry leaves made me look around for a leaping panther. I saw some bamboo made shelters constructed for sighting birds and deer.
Luckily, I came out unscathed by any animal attack, but scarred by Kalpana’s story!
Sometimes you must do something that is adventurous or at least near adventuresome! You must never let the spirit die within you. It is just one life and one must live it as best as one can. I somehow connect to Nature in a way that I hear its voice, I see its hidden beauty and I hear its song!
So with two friends I ventured out one lazy afternoon and travelled in car overnight to Manikaran, the place famous for its hot spring and Gurudwara. We took turns to drive and a not so comfortable, but still great under the circumstances make-shift bed in the SUV in the rear was my bed for the night. Lights, stars, passing trucks and street lights kept me mostly awake but still I was in bed! One must be grateful for small mercies.
At 4 am we parked in the parking at Manikaran and slept till 7 am. By 8.30 am we were at Tosh, a village nestling in pristine beauty and caged in the simplicity of a mountain village life. The welcoming views were just breathtaking.
The peaks around Tosh Valley Village were covered in snow, except where there was enough sunshine for the day. It was December and it had still not snowed, thanks to global warming! I kept on looking with the wonderment of a child at the snow peaks around the glacier: Papasura, White Sail, Angduri, Pinnacle and Devachan. Two names definitely English, rest looked like given by the locals. Thanks be to God that no name changing spree by a self-seeking politician had affected the charming Parvati Valley. Let the names be as handed over to us by Time. After all, it is a layer of history upon another.
But, where was the Village as a whole. I looked back from the glacial peaks and saw a Himalayan village that almost called out to me to discover what lay hidden.
Tosh villagers have opened up homes for home stay with basic facilities and there is always a room to stay. Of course, in such scenic surroundings one tries to choose a place to stay with a view and so we did.
As I ventured out in the village in the morning hours I found facets of life those are unimaginable in city environments. First of all, there was pleasantry and simplicity in the air, which is a rarity in a city these days.
A small boy hanging out on the grill of his home’s balcony was a picture of inquisitiveness and innocence.
Signboards often reflect the educational level of the place and its marketing skills. But, who cares for English and presentation when all you want is good wholesome food in an inhospitable terrain.
The Solitary Reaper
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
It was cold and head and ears had to be well covered. Lunch was at a Cafe which served hot Dal and Cauliflower vegetable, which we ate more than we normally did. When the cold is biting you from everywhere, hot food is more than welcome!
It was time to relax and forget there was a worry in the world. People say that foreign tourists come here for the hash. World’s best hash is grown nearby in Malana.
Evening fell and what was a rocky mountain turned into gold! Such was the effect of awesome Nature!
My friend was brave enough to sit in the balcony during the night for some time and watch the stars. He found the night sky so romantic and clear, the stars nearer.
The flora at Tosh is Himalayan Blue Poppy, Iris, Marigold, Primulas, Buttercups and Balsam. They say you can once in a while see a brown or black bear. The rest of the sky is ruled by Lamagiers, Bull Finches and Rose Finches.
Next morning it was time to go ahead like travellers usually do and leave the visited place like a happy memory in the minds eye.
Distance: New Delhi to Toas by road 560 km; Route: Delhi-Ambala-Surendranagar- Roopnagar-Kasol-Barshana- Manikaran-Tosh.
Trek: Tosh to Kheerganga
WO DUAON KA ASAR HOGA…
Sandeep Silas ‘deep’
Wo duaon ka asar hoga, to zaroor mera hoga
Khuda ke samney mera sar, yun hi jhuka hoga
Wo dil jo mera hoga, to zaroor dhadakta hoga
Khuley aasman ki tarah, wo bhi simat-ta hoga
Wo khwaab subah ka hoga, to zaroor sachh hoga
Aftaab ki mauzoodgi mein, wo chand nikla hoga
Wo kis kadr mujhey chahega, uska noor kaisa hoga
Wo anjum-sabaah, nazuk mizaaj, paak ruh hoga
Wo shabnam ki tarah hoga, to khamosh barasta hoga
Bikhar-bikhar kar rom-rom, wo zaroor khilta hoga
Wo nagma-numah hoga, to saaz ke liye jeeta hoga
Sur aur lay ka roz, dekho, khushnumaah milan hoga
Tutey huey sitaron ka phir, koi naya jahan hoga
Wo ‘deep’ gar jala hoga, ghar-mandir ka hi hoga
Copyright: Sandeep Silas ‘deep’
(Written: Delhi; November 16 & 17, 2017)
The Kalka-Shimla Railway
Like smoke wafting lazily from a candle, blown by a kiss of the wind, chugs the Kalka-Shimla train. The mist, held by the hills and the pines, lowers itself in a welcome to the traveller. Its freshness brings alive the sensations hitherto forgotten and buried under the pace of life.
If you look down history lane with a telescope, you find the gallant and fearsome Grouches of Nepal walking into Sikkim in 1814. The ruler of Sikkim, helpless, appeals to the East India company and the Company Bahadur extends security. At the close of the war in 1816, under the Nepalese Peace Treaty the British `mandarins retained a huge tract of land, which also included the ridge on which Shimla was later built.
One Major Kennedy, built for himself a house at Shimla in 1822. The Governor General’s were quick to realise that the environs of Shimla offered them an England in India. Lord Amherst spent the summer in 1827, followed by his successor Lord William Bentick. However, the journey was not particularly comfortable for the Gora Sahib. Ponies, or jampans – sedan chair fitted with curtains, slung on poles borne by bearers, over a 43 mile mountain track made mule of a man.
It was only for a correspondent, to conceive the idea of a railway line, that time waited for, till Nov. 1847. A passionate plea in the Delhi Gazette by this gentleman advocated the sketching of a railway line to Shimla – “We may then see these cool regions become the permanent seat of a Government, daily invigorated by a temperature adapted to refresh a European constitution, and keep the mental power in a state of health, beneficial both to rulers and the ruled”. The earliest field surveys were conducted between 1884-95. While the railway surveys were on, The Hindostan and Tibet Road, 58 miles, was opened during 1850-56.
The signing of a contract between Secretary of State and the Delhi Umbala Railway Company in 1898 signalled the beginnings of the line. The journey to a cooler paradise became a reality in Lord Curzons’ time.
The bosom of the highly erratic Shivalik hills was parted by a 96 km. railway line on Nov. 9th, 1903. Three years of labour by dedicated engineers and labourers in limestone and shale rocks saw through an astounding feat.
The line passes over 864 bridges and under 102 tunnels. Two-thirds of the formation is laid on sharp curves– sharper than a damsels !
The British chose the narrow gauge dimensions of 2′-6″ as the hills tolerated no more than a whisper to rise the arduous 1519 m between the plain and the hill. The treachery of the hill formation was bound by a silver thread, reassuringly. Lofty stone bridges, arched in their effort of holding the rail, at times three-tiered too, arrest the sight of a traveller.
The dark tunnels aplenty on the ascent, bring more than an opportunity to a honeymooning couple. Excited whistles and natural cries rent the air when you travel. A curious mix of chill and warmth permeates the atmosphere.
The journey from Kalka to Shimla is absolutely out of the world. Immediately on arrival at Kalka one sheds off his inhibitions like snake-skin. The toy train provides a breath-taking view of the Kushalya river, the moment it enters the foothills. The serpentine splash of mercury keeps disappearing and reappearing with each bend for some time. Passage through the Koti tunnel makes you hunt for a coat and the air jabs you, the moment you hit Jabli, 1240 m above sea-level.
Three picturesque loops near Taksal, Gumman and Dharampur provide photo-opportunity to an enthusiast. But wait, more is to follow. The ascent is steady. The train huffs and puffs its way across green meadows, capsicum fields, red-roofed chalets and half timbered houses. Each coach has chuckle under its wheels. Through aged in service, it does not sigh, for it carries a pleasant burden. About seven coaches form a train, to accommodate about 200 passengers per trip. The extremities of weather do not dislodge the determination of the 700 horse power B-B type diesel engines. They run to the call of duty in temperature ranging from 0-45 Celsius and in snow which averages 2 feet during winters. What to talk of the annual rainfall of 200-250 cm received by the hills! The average speed of 25-30 kmph ensures that “hurry” is removed from the psyche and replaced by a naturalness of demeanour.
If you want to taste the beauty of nature in exclusivity, travel in the Rail Motor Car. There are four of them and three date to 1927, while the last dates to 1930. A group of 18 can be housed in this vintage experience. You will be surprised to learn that the original White & Pope petrol engines fitted by Drewery Car Company Ltd., London, were replaced during the second World War as petrol was scarce. Americans supplied the diesel engines to the car, from General Motors, U.S.A.
Surprises escape the visage as nature unrolls its bounty. Gurgling brooks flowing down mountains, passing under the stone bridges, present a pleasing sight. Clouds of mist decide to tumble down and gingerly touch you, enlivening your senses. The train meanders through Kumarhatti, then enters the Barog tunnel which is more than a kilometre long, precisely 1144 mts. This tunnel crosses the Panchmunda ridge, about 900 feet below the road. At Barog, it is mealtime, on the morning trip.
Through the English firm of “Spencers” which built the restaurant at Barog is no longer there, but the English hospitality continues to live.
From Barog to Kandagthat the train runs downhill, past beautiful and quaint retreats of Solan and Saloghra. The final climb begins at Kandaghat. Gradually, solemn forests of deodars and pines replace the meadows. The abundant green fills the soul. At Shogi, a heartwarming view of the Chail valley brings numerous anecdotes associated with a Prince to the fore. It is said that this Punjab Prince, pinched the bottom of an English class on the Shimla ridge, and was thence banished from English society at Shimla. Undeterred, he built for himself a palace at Chail, a nearby resort.
Past Taradevi, the railways take you under Prospect hill to Jutogh, winding its way like a naughty current of air teasing you, tickling you, till it pauses at Summer Hill.
The prospects of a fullsome holiday brighten up the spirits of each traveller. Finally, like the last birth pang it burrows under the Inverarm Hill, to emerge and deliver a happy child at Shimla.
The transformation of a traveller from an adult to a child is complete.
As little as a train journey brings out the child in the man, to chuckle, laugh and indulge in childlike pranks around the invigorating forest paths of Shimla.
Travellers must move on towards the destination, the source of life. There are always halts filled with magic en route, but the journey of the ‘seeker’ makes him plod on and on. While traveling to Gangotri I have taken a night halt at Bhairon Ghati, 9 kms short. Next morn, I leave the Bhairon temple in the care of its tree cluster, the GMVN Tourist Rest House happy in its hollow, and the rigid crags that tower above the place to their permanent positions. They have enacted the role of a protective godfather all through, as if shielding the hamlet from some danger. They have also successfully hidden the pleasures of the journey beyond as if they are a grave finality.
The thought of river Bhagirathi, like a mystical light shining in the distance, led me ahead till Gangotri was reached. Gangotri is a temple town, a holy place for most Indians. It is also the end of pilgrimage for some and the beginning of pilgrimage for others. The height above sea-level is 3140 m and you can feel the sharpness of the wind. Cars and jeeps line the thin metallic road and cops have a tough time organising orderly parking.
The religious significance of the place is immense. It is believed that river Bhagirathi owes its origin to the foot of Lord Vishnu, wherefrom it started flowing first, and was captured by the jatas (hair-locks) of Lord Shiva. That was a tale of heavens above. On earth, King Bhagirath, unable to bear the suffering of his people due to water scarcity worshipped Lord Shiva at Gangotri. His devotion so pleased Lord Shiva that he asked him for a boon. Bhagirath prayed that Ganga be released from Lord Shiva’s hair locks for the benefit of his people. So was granted Ganga to the earth. It is named after Bhagirath as river Bhagirathi from the point of its descent at Gaumukh up to Dev Prayag. At Dev Prayag, the river Alaknanda merges with Bhagirathi and thence onwards it is called Ganga.
An arched gate, gifted by the Border Police to the town, greets the eye. Everyone has to pass through it, the destination being Gangotri, temple, the bathing ghats or the steps leading to the trek route of 18 kilometers to Gaumukh. Gangotri temple is small. It is erected on the sacred stone where as per tradition Bhagirath worshipped Lord Shiva. The building is non-ornamental, rather ordinary in appearance. There are no statues on the exterior and its height is also about 12 feet. E.T. Atkinson wrote of it in the 19th century- “it is quite plain, coloured white with red mouldings, and surmounted with the usual melon-shaped ornament commonly known as Turk’s cap.” The temple is quite the same save that the colour combination is now white walls and silver top.
The serious trekkers take to the steps, which connect the Gangotri ghats and the trek route. Buy a walking stick— you might need three legs on the way ahead. The river Bhagirathi is a pleasant companion all through right up to Gaumukh. Sometimes the mountain rocks to your side echo the forceful holler of rushing waves. Yes the river makes them sing. The snow peaks enveloped forever in a clouded embrace of the Meghdoot (cloud messenger) sit happily above their unsteady glaciers. It is a treat to lift the eyes from a rivulet meeting the river bed; slowly caress first the green cover, then the black, rough and prominent crags; then allow the vision to melt in the snow at upper reaches.
The trekking route is tough, full of uneven stones, even dusty at times. It is a real test for the muscles of the legs. You really get to know more about your own legs than you believed. Tree trunks have been used to bridge rivulets and one has to balance steps lest the boulders in the water have the last laugh. The trek is a story of ascents and descents. You rise again as the path decides to lift itself from the riverbed. It is good to feel the heights. You tend to pause before every new face of a snow peak, which is revealed to you. The edges of the black crags are to be admired. The eyes can feel their razor thin sharpness and also their blunt prominence.
Shacks en route provide plastic comfort to weary travellers. They offer biscuits, potato chips, simple roti-dal (bread and pulses), paranthas (oil-fried bread), and bottled water. Mattresses to recline on are luxury! There are slogans displayed on banners about the ill effects of plastic and non-biodegradable waste. The glacial river must not be polluted with polythene or plastic wrappers. Thanks to these gentle reminders erected by environmentalists, the route is remarkably free of poly-pack litter. Travellers were seen actually heeding the advice and using dustbins.
Bite into something at Chirbasa, 9 kilometer deep, from the origin of the trek at Gangotri. Have some tea with a dash of salt, it will pep you up. The hamlet of Chirbasa is a cluster of pines rushing from the heights in a straight descent to the riverbed. Shacks are perched on space created between boulders on the ridge. This ridge you cross. Do not halt too long lest the legs refuse to lift again. Bhojbasa, 5 kilometres ahead, has to be reached for a night halt. And of course, sunset must be enjoyed at Bhojbasa before you hit the bed.
The flora along the trek route is different and interesting. Ganga Tulsi, a shrub with a heady scent, used as an accompaniment during Hindu worship, and White Jungle Rose, each flower with only four petals, almost line the route.
Yellow wildflowers too have a word to say! Some concerned environmentalist groups are trying level best to not only generate public awareness but also give a green cover to the Himalayas where it is most needed. So we see plantations of Spruce, Silver Fir, Blue Pine and Himalayan Cedar along the way. A little ahead of Chirbasa, some educationists nurse a Bhojpatra nursery. This effort at preserving a threatened specie is laudable. The Bhojpatra Utilis has a distinct white bark and round green leaves. Its botanical name is Betula Utilis. The bark of this tree served as paper for recording ancient Hindu religions texts. I peel some. It is actually as thin as finest quality paper. I keep it as a memento, but it is not enough to write a song!
There are no wild animals to sight save herds of mountain goat and deer. We see one. A goat blessed with a pair of curved horns is perhaps the leader of this herd and his posturing on a rock proudly proclaims it. The coat of the goats blends with the rocks. The black mountains have yellowish-brown traces. So does the goatskin. There are no trees on these hard infertile rocks and shrubs are sparse. How beautifully God has provided them protection by making them look like rocks! You are left wondering?
The sun plays hide and seek on a June afternoon. Clouds drift at will. Sometimes you see a snow mountain half-concealed by clouds and half-visible to the eyes. It is like watching a Venus, thinly clad, sensuous in demeanour, and amorous in the eye, whom you would like to only see and not touch!
The Bhagirathi river continues to sing its song as we continue upstream. It is past 4 p.m. in the evening. Our guide warns of falling stones in a patch ahead. A warning signboard and we smell trouble. True enough it rains stones on the route ahead. We do not carry hard hats. I hide behind a huge boulder clutching the hand of my 10-year old son. Stones keep rolling down. They can break bones or even throw a person deep down towards the riverbed by sheer impact. One has to exercise caution. This phenomenon in the evening is due to harsh winds blowing across. The mountains in this patch are loose stones embedded in mud. So the peculiar rain. It is strange coincidence that this is the 13th kilometer from Gangotri, I observe! We run across carefully finding our steps when the fury if the mountain is spent.
The last leg to trek for the day to Bhojbasa is tougher still. A stream has to be crossed sans a log bridge. You have to place your feet in the bed on firm stones so as to save your shoes from getting wet. My son exclaims aloud—“Tough route, tottering wooden bridges, falling stones, icy wind, quite deadly.” Still he makes the 14 km trek in good seven hours.
Alas my desire of watching the sunset at Bhojbasa is not fulfilled. The clouds just whisked away the sun in a swift move! I have to wait yet another day braving the biting wind on the Bhojbasa ridge. There is a GMVN Tourist Rest House, an Ashram and several shacks, which serve as night shelter. You come back in life to just hoping for basics; a toilet is a luxury.
The Bhojbasa valley is panoramic. It is really huge. Gaumukh is seen as a cluster of rocks from this ridge. It is the source of the river Bhagrathi or Ganga, regarded by Indians over the centuries as mystical, spiritual and holy. Three peaks of Mount Bhagirathi tower above Gaumukh. It is an unbelievable sight—one, which you deserve in a lifetime. The three summits, Bhagirathi I, II & III perhaps symbolise the trinity of beauty, truth and peace, which I presumed was exposed earlier to me on the trek. How wonderful!
The morning was proclaimed in a loud exclamation. The moon had not left its rightful reign of the night sky and the sun was raising expectations of travellers as it continued in its upward stride. Pure magic was being played all around Bhojbasa Valley by the Great God. Straight above Gaumukh, the cloud curtain was gradually being lifted from over the three Bhagirathi peaks. They were being revealed like sacred verses are spoken to listeners. If you lose them in that pure moment they are gone, sucked in by that force, which transforms the present into the past—the churning wheel of time.
Sure enough an overpowering cloud fall barred the snow peaks from sight in the next few minutes. So were gone two beautiful virginal peaks to our left, one, which was bravely trying to cradle the moon in its last sojourn! The sheer transience of the scene was mesmerising, just like elemental man-woman associations, which charm you as long as they last.
The last 4 kilometers to Gaumukh are tougher. Especially the very last! The trek reduces to nothing but trapeze walk over accumulated boulders. Only faith and will power can take you ahead. Finally Gaumukh, 4000 m above sea-level, is reached. I find a perch on a rock before the cave, the source, and settle down to my thoughts. As I look at Gaumukh, I feel the sensuousness and abundance of love. That love, which knows no bounds. That love, that gives and gives always and forever.
Gaumukh is a cave surrounded by glacial bottle-green ice. Water, the source and preserver of all life on earth, keeps gushing out in good measure. The spectacle is akin to a mother giving birth to a child. The half-moon cave is the source, the water life at birth. And you son of man, a part of this beautiful creation!
People bathe, pray here. By doing so they believe that they have purged all sins. I feel the icy water and look at the slab of ice bobbling beside the rock I sit upon. I look again at Gaumukh or the cow’s mouth, the name given to the glacier cavern. Next moment, I am in the water, my hands clutching a rock and my lungs holding my breath. I have done it! Yes how many get the opportunity to worship the mother source of a holy river at its hideout deep into the Himalayas. The sun is benevolent. It lights up eyes and many lives. The ice sparkles. Sometimes chunks of ice fall down from the top of the glacier cave to meet the water below. Huge blocks of ice and the current of water play a game with each other. The stream cuts into the blocks and pushes it mid-stream. The block tries hard to stay put on its temporary throne and breaks the current into two. The game continues here in a hitherto unusual unseen mirth of ice and water; both same and yet so different!
Above Gaumukh is Tapovan. All saffron clad barefoot or slipper-sporting sadhus (holy men) are headed for that territory. It is place across the Bhagirathi glacier where Rishis and Munis did penance and meditated. Today there is some alarming news from Tapovan. One traveller slipped and fell some distance below to hurt his head on a rock. He was evacuated on a makeshift stretcher by locals and some foreign trekkers. It will be almost ten hours before he reaches Gangotri, where first-aid is available. Bhojbasa, I think, demands a doctor, a medical unit and telephone connectivity for evacuation by helicopter in dire emergencies.
The Himalayan glaciers have long fascinated the British explorers who arduously mapped and recorded their uniqueness. Colonel Gordon (Roof of the World, 17) writes—“the glaciers of the Western Himalayas are twice as extensive as those of the Alps, and are probably the largest in the world or at all events larger than any others out of the polar regions.” How do you recognise a glacier and the river it has given birth, must be understood. I am tempted to quote Lieutenant R. Strachey on the appearance of a glacier—“It seems to be a vast rounded mass of rocks and ground utterly devoid of any sign of vegetation, standing up out of a grassy valley. From the foot of its nearer extremity the river, even here infordable, rushes in a turbid torrent out of a sort of cave; the top of which is but a few feet above the surface of the water. Behind this, the glacier rises less steeply like a bare gravel hill, to its full height, which is probably 500 feet above the water of the river when it leaves the cave.”
After a tete a tete with Bhagirathi glacier and river source one must return to Bhojbasa or if possible Chirbasa for a night halt. Walking early morn on return is pure satisfaction to the visual and olfactory senses. Start about 6–6.30 a.m. The clouds are still lazing in the valley. Their effortless glide up the mountains is inspiring. The atmosphere is filled with the fragrance of plants and shrubs, especially Ganga Tulsi. You become part of generous nature. Many prayers come to lips in such circumstance—God make me a mountain stream so that I can quench the thirst of earth, plants, and men; God make me a wildflower, so that I can enliven a jungle path; God make me a birdsong so that I fill the woods with music; God make me a cloud so that I roam anywhere at free will; God make me a mountain summit so that I tower above everything else; God make me the wind so that I can give life to the world; God make me a star in the sky so that I fill the eyes of your children with dreams. Any one of these prayers could be yours. The prayer of humility, of freedom, of power, or dreams; it just depends how you feel. I, for one, would like to end up as a birdsong in a forest!
All good things these days end up in a mix of concrete, machine and artificiality. Should you come here once, you would be happy that for some days you were only a child of benevolent Nature.